by Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863)
translated from Romanesco by Joseph S. Salemi

Before Pope Genga went down to the grotto
To be four slabs of cured ham on the bone,
He was thought by everyone in Rome
To be our best luck since the jackpot Lotto.

What he did seemed never to be bad;
What he said seemed always to be wise—
His every foe a creep you could despise:
A Jacobin, a thief, a worthless cad.

But just as soon as he died, in a wink
That highly praised and blessèd Pope became
A jackass, an old wolf, a babbling stink.

And so it happened to the poor guy’s shame
As mice do when the cat’s dead: smile, strut, blink,
And dance a little jig on his cold frame.



Original Romanesco


Prima che Ppapa Ggenga annassi sotto
A ddiventà cquattr’ossa de presciutto,
Se sentiva aripete da pertutto
Ch’era mejjo pe nnoi che un ternallotto.

Cquer che fasceva lui ggnente era bbrutto,
Cquer che ddisceva lui tutto era dotto:
E ’ggni nimmico suo era un frabbutto,
Un giacubbino, un ladro, un galeotto.

Ma appena che ccrepò, tutt’in un tratto
Addiventò cquer Papa bbenedetto
Un zomaro, un vorpone, un cazzomatto.

E accusí jj’è ssuccesso ar poveretto,
Come li sorci cuann’è mmorto er gatto
Je fanno su la panza un minuetto.

—Volume I, poem 487




A Brief Note

My first translation of G.G. Belli’s work here was of a sonnet that dealt with obedience and the papacy in general. But many of Belli’s sonnets touch directly upon individual popes, either critically or comically. This one (“Papa-Leone”) is about Leo XII, who was a contemporary of Belli.

“Papa-Leone” was Annibale Della Genga (1760-1829), who reigned as Pope Leo XII from 1823 to 1829. A compromise candidate who was elected late in life (he did not want the position), he was unpopular in both the city of Rome and the surrounding Papal States. He had shown good will and administrative abilities in his earlier diocesan appointments, but he was completely out of his league in the much greater and more complex task of handling the vast territories of central Italy.

Leo XII tried hard to maintain a semblance of order and a veneer of respect for the papacy, and in Rome he was strict in suppressing any open dissent or criticism. But Italy during his pontificate was seething with discontent and troubles, and all Leo could do was try to maintain the status quo and pass the difficulties on to his successor. Belli’s sonnet reveals the anger that lurked below the calm surface, and that erupted on the Pope’s death.

Belli’s title is probably a sarcastic slap at the Pope’s ineffectiveness or lack of strength as a politician. The word leo means “lion” in Latin, and the normal reference in Italian to this Pope would be “Papa Leo,” but by calling him “Papa-Leone” (which uses the standard Italian for the animal) Belli emphasizes, with a certain contempt, the man’s inability to show the guts and courage required to be a real ruler. Calling him “Ppapa Ggenga” in the first line probably adds to the disrespect, since referring to a Pope by his family name is always demeaning.

Nevertheless, Belli attempts to be even-handed—his octet mentions that the election of Pope Leo did at first fill Romans with hope, and many of his incidental acts seemed useful and wise. But the concluding sestet can be taken in two ways: either the Roman populace was so fickle that the slightest thing could alienate them, or the subjects in the Papal States slowly began to realize that Pope Leo’s only aim was to sit things out and do nothing substantial for their benefit. Whichever the case, Pope-Lion lost his reputation quickly, like a dead cat.


Some Vocabulary Items

presciutto: standard Italian prosciutto, a cured pork product.
frabbutto: standard Italian farabutto, scoundrel, creep.
giacubbino: a radical, a liberal (English and French “Jacobin”).
vorpone: standard Italian volpone, an old and dangerous wolf.
cazzomatto: literally a “demented prick,” and in Italian the term signifies a stupid, blundering blockhead, with the associated meaning of a brutish ruffian.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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8 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    Nice job keeping the rhymes in the right places, Joseph. I imagine that that must be one of the hardest things to square in a translation. Your note was a critical necessity for helping me understand what the poem is all about, but what is up with the doubling of initial letters of some words in the original?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      That’s a peculiarity of Romanesco orthography. It’s a way to indicate the “hard” quality of the consonant when it follows certain vowels. Belli was very particular about this, as he was intent on capturing the real pronunciation of the dialect he was using. As a native speaker of Romanesco, he wanted to be faithful to its phonics in print, so that someone who did not speak it would know precisely how to pronounce the words. In his work as an official in the Papal States, Belli of course would have used standard Tuscan as his form of communication.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I thoroughly enjoyed this translation, beautifully enhanced by the notes that assisted me in appreciating the humor to the full. It would appear that death is a great leveler, and not much has changed in the-mice-will-play attitude across time and continents. I’ve also made a very silly observation that has me smiling… it’s an awful lot simpler to rhyme in Italian than it is in English. Joe, thank you!

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Susan, translating this guy’s work with “the rhymes in the right places” (as Kip Anderson puts it) was a ball-buster, as we used to say when I was a street kid in Noo Yawk. I’ve translated a third sonnet, but I think that will be all for me.

    All the Romance languages have an easier time with rhyming, since there are so many parallel endings. I guess that’s why a Sicilian had to invent the sonnet, and why we Anglophone types have always had to lag behind! But we manage pretty well, I think.

  4. Brian Yapko

    I very much enjoyed reading your translation, Joseph, and trying to piece together the Romanesco. (Do you consider Romanesco a separate language or a dialect?) The language you use is juicy and enjoyable to the extent that English permits. The difficulties in starting with a huge pool of Italian rhymes and having to drastically reduce that pool when translating into English is well noted and you handle it perfectly by retaining the musicality of the original (I understand that it’s not actually set to music) even though you increase the number of rhymes. I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

    It’s fascinating to compare the Romanesco dialect to standard Italian — it doesn’t actually seem all that different. English in its various forms probably has linguistic differences as notable (Cockney, for example) though in English we would probably not have the variant spelling.

    Also, I would love to hear this poem actually recited to further appreciate the dialect and the musicality of the piece.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Brian —

      Many thanks for your kind comments. The question of “dialect” or “language” is still a touchy one in Italy, and has been so ever since the Renaissance (it was being hotly debated in 1528 in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier!) Today, Tuscan is officially accepted and taught as “standard Italian,” but many of the other dialects in Italy (Sicilian, Milanese, Neapolitan, Venetian, Friulian, and many others) are not only still spoken, but also have a considerable body of written literature behind them. They have every right to be considered as separate languages.

      In fact, Sardinian and Friulian and Rhaeto-Romansch are not part of the Italian linguistic spectrum at all, but are offshoots of separate branches of the Romance family. They are only listed as “dialects” because those areas are under Italian political control.

      The Romanesco dialect of Belli still exists, and is even used in advertising in and around Rome. Today’s form of it is changed quite a bit since Belli’s time, but the huge corpus of sonnets that he left has established Belli’s dialect as a kind of classic, still read widely and appreciated by Italians.

  5. James Kirkpatrick

    In the mid-90s I became enamored of all things Italian and, consequently, scoured my local library for anything remotely associated with the place and its alluring people. It was slim pickings, yet somehow there was, among the holdings, a bilingual copy of Belli’s sonnets! His irreverence, wild similies, sharp turns of phrase … I was hooked. Now, every time (and it’s rare) that I see his work, the best assocations of that time and blossoming sensibilities come rushing back with force.

    What a great translation. I love the way you’ve maintained Belli’s characteristic curtness, his dry, hilarious tone that always struck me as that of an embittered eulogist-for-hire, on the cusp of retirement and hastily wrapping up his obligations: “He lived. He died. He’s rotting now. The end.”

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank for your kind words and comments. Your description of the poet’s “curtness, his dry hilarious tone” is right on target — Belli’s satire can be as merciless and as biting as carbolic acid.

      I have a third sonnet of Belli that I will submit to the SCP at a later time. He has to be taken in small doses.


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